What We’re Not Supposed to Talk About

Philosophy is everybody's business.

“No religion or politics.” That’s a rule we very often establish in professional settings. We don’t want to offend any of our office mates, employees, customers or suppliers (to say nothing of keeping the peace at Thanksgiving Dinner).

At first glance it makes a ton of sense to avoid these topics. Since there is so much weight attached to them, it is only natural to avoid strife and issues which get in the way of our normal professional or friendly relationships. Why deal with the controversy when we have so many things in common?

Like a lot of things, though, it only really makes sense at first glance. Once we scratch the surface, the case gets less compelling. Normally, it would be appropriate to try to be clear on what “religion” means and what “politics” means, but instead let me further confuse the situation by adding the third topic that people do not want to talk about: “philosophy.”

People avoid talking about philosophy, not because it is controversial, but because it is supposedly too boring, or too nerdy, as only pointy-headed bearded old people with pipes waste time pontificating on such things. But is that the right approach?

Lets start with a scenario we use with students in my Civics and Community class:

Bill loans Fred a calculator. A week later, Bill asks for his calculator back. Fred has four choices: a) give it back, b) ask for more time, c) avoid Bill’s calls, or d) simply refuse and keep it. The answer is pretty straightforward.

Now change the calculator to a sword. The discussion is likely going to be similar. One last change: pretend that Bill has gone wacko, three-fries-short-of-a-happy-meal crazy in that week. How does that change our thoughts on things?

This scenario is not only a more fundamental approach to the many things that we argue about today (property rights, sharing, friendship, and even safety and mental health) it is also the precise philosophical query which almost zero politicians and activists actually have regarding gun laws. 

It is a discussion that has been had before… by Plato (or if you prefer, Socrates), in the “Dialogues” nearly 2500 years ago (OK, it wasn’t a calculator). Why politicians do not pursue wisdom in this way is debatable, but whomever or whatever we blame is immaterial. 

And it would remiss to try to depend on a media industry that is, in every way imaginable, lost. Regardless of whether their intentions are noble, the entire marketplace of ideas in the public sphere from the fourth estate is as inept as the politicians in which they cover, if for no other reason than the fact we can not even identify who is a member of this estate and who is not.

So, since it is not being done by “the public” it is left for us in the marketplace to pick up the slack. It — the marketplace of ideas — is also foundational, and essential, to the Western tradition.

These types of deliberations are not only foundational to politics, but how we relate to each other in general as human beings. They also seldom lead to hard, fast, and definitive conclusions. In other words, it’s not science. These deliberations tend to tap into a different set of ideas than science, namely one of “values” as opposed to material facts.

Since we just celebrated MLK Day, a little known quote from the reverend should prove useful: 

“Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge, which is power; religion gives man wisdom, which is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values. The two are not rivals.”

How many of us, honestly, chose our careers or businesses on the basis of scientific certainty and reason? It’s hard to think of any reason why we would.  We normally choose our paths — especially more risky paths like quitting a perfectly good job and starting something from scratch — based on a set of values and ideas which cannot be pinned down logically or mathematically.

It is simply not advisable, or even feasible, to sanitize our business interactions of all principles and values. The important thing is to focus on those values and not get caught up in personality wars and talking heads.

We must not only exercise our muscles of shared inquiry, we must also embrace the fact that there could be disagreement on our values or principles; and this does not mean we should not discuss them. It means we have to discuss them in order for them to have meaning, and we have to learn from others through their values as well. 

What we’re not supposed to talk about is precisely what we have to talk about. Tune in to the latest episode of Great Conversation(s), a project of IndED.


William “Butch” Porter is a Louisiana native and graduate of Physics/Astronomy from Louisiana State University. He worked for a college marketing internship through a publishing company out of Nashville, TN. After earning his MBA from the University of South Carolina, Butch took stints in the telecom and insurance industries before striking out to form Independent Education (IndED), a “great ideas” based, shared-inquiry learning center preparing students for the “social duties and the functions of self-government. IndED recently launched a sister endeavor called “Great Conversation(s)” which helps adults find ways to meet, discuss, and deliberate on important topics and ideas of value.